This essay is part of a series this month, coinciding with the concept of Flagship February, wherein we intend to revisit the flagship beers of regional craft breweries, reflect on their influence within the beer scene, and assess how those beers fit into the modern beer world. Click here to see all the other entries in the series.
What is a “craft brewery” flagship, exactly? Answer: Pretty much anything you’d like for it to be, at least if the Brewers Association definition of “craft brewer” holds any sway for you. It may or may not, given that what was once at least a moderately specific bar to clear has become much, much more generalized over the years.
You can choose to call the repeated changes to that definition a welcoming or positive thing, inclusive of many more companies making an array of creative products. Or, if you’re like us and are a bit more on the cynical side, you can see those changes to the definition as tools to repeatedly prop up the production numbers of the craft beer industry, keeping companies like Boston Beer Co. in the fold by altering the definition to include first their growth, and then their diversification into becoming primarily a non-beer company. We’ve expounded on all of this before, but this isn’t meant to be another post about Boston Beer Co. Rather, it’s dedicated to one of the other companies whose classification was transformed in a major way by an update to the “craft brewer” definition, and that is Yuengling Brewery.
This change came about in 2014, when the BA dropped a portion of the “Traditional” requirement from its craft brewer definition, which had previously mandated that craft brewers must have an all-malt, non-adjunct flagship—a move seemingly designed to ideologically exclude the light-bodied, low-flavor adjunct lagers primarily produced by the non-craft industry titans. Suddenly, as long as a company was producing less than 6 million barrels of beer per year, their primary breadwinner could be any beer—even adjunct lager. And that was good news for Yuengling, the historic Pennsylvania brewery in operation since 1829, as its flagship Traditional Lager introduced in 1987 does indeed contain a portion of corn in the mash.
With that, overnight, Yuengling became the country’s largest “craft brewer,” per the BA definition, vaulting past Boston Beer Co. and illustrating just how successful an independent brewery Yuengling had been this whole time, even if the beer geeks hadn’t necessarily noticed. Built on a mild, toasty amber lager, the company produces considerably more than 2 million barrels annually, which is all the more incredible when you realize that even now, in 2020, Yuengling is still only sold in 22 states. Indeed, the furthest West that cans of Traditional Lager reach is Arkansas, while the furthest north they’re available is in New York. Despite being an East Coast icon, Yuengling isn’t even available on the entirety of the East Coast, having not yet entered New Hampshire, Vermont or Maine. Compare that to the likes of Samuel Adams Boston Lager, available in seemingly every gas station of all 50 states, and you can’t help but realize just HOW MUCH Yuengling Traditional Lager its die-hard fans must consume. Who needs national TV commercial campaigns when you’ve got that kind of hardcore fanbase?
Perhaps it’s those gaudy numbers that always seem to lead to the flagship Yuengling Traditional Lager being compared against macro lagers in the flavor department as well, even though it’s really not the same style beer as a bottle of Budweiser or Coors Banquet. If anything, Traditional Lager is closer to something like a German Vienna lager, albeit one that would never have been Reinheitsgebot-compliant, thanks to the added corn. It occupies a unique space on the shelf: An American amber lager that is noticeably more malty than the macro rank and file, but comparatively mild compared to almost any other craft flagship. It’s in the middle, and that’s proven to be a uniquely successful position for Yuengling.
Now let’s see how it’s drinking in 2020.
Tasting: Yuengling Traditional Lager
First, here’s how the brewery describes its flagship lager:
Famous for its rich amber color and medium-bodied flavor with roasted caramel malt for a subtle sweetness and a combination of Cluster and Cascade hops, this true original delivers a well-balanced taste with very distinct character. Born from a historic recipe that was resurrected in 1987, Yuengling Traditional Lager is a true classic.
Well, it’s certainly novel to have the flagship of any craft brewery namedropping the Cluster hop varietal, known as one of the oldest workhorse bittering hops in the U.S., and used in many famous macro lagers—but not so much in what we think of as craft beer styles, such as pale ale and IPA. That, and somewhat antiquated phrases like “roasted caramel malt” give the impression of a throwback beer style, and that fits Yuengling Traditional Lager pretty well. It’s a simple, get-the-job-done beer, and it does its job well.
On the nose, it’s mild but not lacking in character. I get subtle maltiness and hints of toast, with almost a slight cocoa note that is warm and inviting. On the palate, it’s very light, with wisps of toasty malt and a subtle sweetness, especially considering what modern craft beer geeks have come to think of as “sweet.” It’s rounder in texture than you would expect to find in a more hop-forward pilsner or a more crisp light lager, with a bit more suggestion of body, and the tiniest flourish of herbal hops. All in all, Traditional Lager drinks easy. It’s not exactly the most exciting, but “being the most exciting beer on the market” is in no way the game plan here. It’s meant to be crushable, while still offering a bit more character than its competition, and that’s what it does.
And pro tip: It’s also great for throwing in the slow cooker with a pork shoulder. I know this one from experience.
Yuengling Traditional Lager is, if nothing else, a totally unique case: A hugely produced beer with a ton of die-hard drinkers, but a comparatively low profile. Maybe that’s the result of hailing from a brewery that is more than 190 years old, but this beer projects a certain quiet confidence. It knows it’s going to stick around, regardless of how it’s classified.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident craft beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drinks writing.